Film stirs flap over killing of general in 1814

`First Invasion' omits names of 2 city teens

September 17, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

A History Channel documentary that premiered in Baltimore last week said the turning point in the War of 1812 took place at the Battle of North Point, when "an anonymous sniper" killed the commander of British land forces.

"The sniper's name has faded into history," the narrator of First Invasion says.

The name might be lost to the History Channel, but not to Baltimoreans, who credit two city teenagers with the deed.

Daniel Wells and Henry McComas are mentioned in history books, have streets named after them and are honored with an obelisk on Monument Street, where Mayor Martin O'Malley laid a wreath for Defenders' Day.

With two local heroes seemingly snubbed, Baltimore is, once again, up in arms.

"They made that terrible blooper - it's a shame," said Henry A. Ercole Jr., 82, a retired city school principal who called on the History Channel to revise the film. "It's teaching false history to our children and the world."

But it could be that local lore - not the out-of-town filmmakers - has it wrong.

It is known that Wells and McComas, members of the Maryland Militia, died Sept. 12, 1814. So did British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, a respected military leader whose death was a huge blow to his forces. What is less certain, historians say, is whether Wells and McComas were the ones who felled Ross.

"It's part of Baltimore folklore," said Amato Mongelluzzo, park ranger at Fort McHenry. "There's no historical proof. All you can say is they were in the unit there, and they were killed. As far as who shot Ross, we don't really know."

Records from that time make no mention of either teen, he said. Their names do not pop up until the 1850s, when a political movement bent on keeping immigrants in general and Catholics in particular out of positions of power resurrected their memory.

The American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party, "hit upon Wells and McComas as kind of exemplars - local Anglo-Saxons who managed to repel foreign invaders, which the American Party saw themselves as doing," said Francis O'Neill, reference librarian for the Maryland Historical Society.

The group had the teens' bodies disinterred and eventually moved to Monument Street, where the obelisk was erected. The monument quite literally cemented a legend, if not myth, into city history, O'Neill said.

"Especially with a monument, you figure it must be legit," O'Neill said.

My Maryland, the history textbook used in state public schools for most of the 20th century, names Wells and McComas in connection with Ross' death, although the language did leave some wiggle room.

"Their [British] leader, Gen. Robert Ross, had been killed near Gorsuch's Farm it is said by two Baltimore boys named Wells and McComas," it reads.

The texts used now in city history classes do not mention the teens at all, said Kevin Jenkins, a social studies specialist for the district. But for Baltimoreans who grew up with the story, the names of Wells and McComas were glaring omissions from the movie - even given the lack of historical certainty.

O'Malley, a history buff who appears in the film, tried to persuade the makers to include Wells and McComas, "even if they said, `It's believed to be' or `thought to be,'" spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

Dolores Gavin, executive producer, said she was familiar with the story of Wells and McComas and visited their monument as a child growing up in the Colesville area. But she isn't convinced the tale was true.

"I actually have friends in Baltimore who said, `Did you forget the monument?'" she said. "Unfortunately, there's no hard evidence."

But if it would be inaccurate to give the teens unqualified credit for taking out a general, isn't it also inaccurate to say the "anonymous" shooter's name had "faded into history"? There are, after all, not one but two names out there, alive in popular lore.

Gavin conceded that it would have been more precise to say something like, "The shooter's identity is not known for certain." But that would have taken more time, she said, in a medium that demands timing "second by second."

"If we could say something in three words," that won out over something more verbose, she said.

There could be an upside to giving Wells and McComas short shrift in the movie, said O'Malley, who was otherwise thrilled with the film. The mayor called First Invasion the "greatest ad for Baltimore since Francis Scott Key wrote the `Star-Spangled Banner.' "

He'd like to see a sequel: The Mystery of Ross' Death Revealed.

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